As a publisher of children’s books, I sometimes get asked, “Hasn’t every story for kids already been written?” Of course there are always new stories, if you know where and how to look for them. But sometimes, we make a point of retelling the old ones—and I think that can be incredibly important.
Kids are smarter than a lot of people give them credit for: curious about the world, open-minded, able to soak up new ideas and information. The best children’s books tell stories that respect kids’ intelligence while acknowledging the questions they have about the world around them. It’s possible to recast tough topics or historical events in a way that has value for younger readers. And in many cases, I think it’s absolutely necessary to do so.
Responding to the current moment can be difficult, especially when we’re planning books a few seasons, or even years, in advance. When author James Gladstone approached Owlkids Books with the idea for Earthrise: Apollo 8 and the Photo That Changed the World (to be published in October), we knew we had to work fast to publish the book in time for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 mission. It was during this mission that astronauts took the iconic Earthrise photo, which came to symbolize hope in a year of global unrest.
Even though 1968 was long before readers of this picture book were born, today’s political climate has echoes in the tumultuous politics of then: 1968 was a year that saw the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the escalation of the Vietnam War, and marches around the world for civil rights and freedoms.
The book’s creators wanted to bring the era to life with authenticity. Gladstone combed through NASA transcripts to create the dialogue. Illustrator Christy Lundy did extensive research about the art and culture of 1960s America to create the book’s retro-influenced illustrations.
But the most important thing for everyone was that the people here on Earth—especially those who have traditionally been underrepresented in children’s books—were authentically portrayed. Christy and James chose to depict a young black girl and her family in a parallel narrative as they excitedly watch coverage of the first crewed spacecraft to orbit the moon. And I think this underlines the point of the story—that Earthrise was an inspiring moment for everyone, not just those who happened to look like the astronauts!
This fall we are also publishing The Eleventh Hour, by political cartoonist Jacques Goldstyn. The picture book was inspired by the story of the last Canadian soldier killed in WWI, before the 11 a.m. armistice came into effect 100 years ago on Nov. 11, 1918. When our sister company in French Canada showed us early pages, we recognized the value of amplifying the story to our English-speaking audience. Jacques artfully shines a light on the tragic and often absurd realities of war, trusting that kids will understand.
The Apollo 8 mission and WWI are ancient history to children. But my hope is that by recasting these historical narratives for young readers, we will all be inspired to shed dusty perspectives and start vital new conversations about the future.
Karen Boersma is the publisher of Owlkids Books.